India is a country that is expected to play a central role in the 21st century. Having a large and fast-growing economy, it is also strengthening its military and is well positioned to dominate South Asia and extend its influence beyond it. But it must also face notable challenges, both domestically and geopolitically.
THE GEOGRAPHICAL BASES OF INDIA’S POWER
To understand India’s current international role and to anticipate the one it will have in the coming decades, it is necessary to analyse the geographic fundamentals of its power.
The first thing to consider is its dimension. India is a vast state and this has several positive and negative implications. On the one hand, this means that India can benefit from a notable strategic depth, but on the other it also means that connecting all the parts of its territory is a difficult endeavour.
This must be considered along with India’s configuration. Its territory presents a wide range of environments and climatic areas. Far to the north there are the towering mountains of Himalaya, a formidable geographic barrier that separates it from China. This is important, considering the complicated relations between the two powers.
Then, there are the fertile valleys of the Ganges and other rivers, which are vital sources of water and useful communication lanes that have favoured agriculture, industrialization and energy production.
The Deccan Plateau that occupies the southern part of the Peninsula is another notable geographic feature, also because of its mineral resources.
India holds quite abundant ore deposits that have helped its industrialization. In terms of energy, while it has its own production of oil and other fossil fuels, this is not sufficient to meet the country’s large and expanding needs.
Other areas include jungles, arid deserts and tropical shores; which all present both advantages and challenges: for instance, the Thar desert between India and Pakistan is a useful buffer zone, but is also a problem for economic development.
Finally, in terms of position India occupies most of South Asia, and its location favours both defence and power projection. As seen before, it benefits from good natural barriers to the north, but at the same time its neighbours are not friendly.
To the north-east, China is getting everyday more powerful and its geopolitical ambitions are a matter of concern for India.
To the north-west lays Pakistan, which apart from being India’s arch-nemesis since the 1947 partition has also built close ties with the PRC. But while the situation to the north is very challenging for India, its southern borders are very favourable.
There, the coast extends for thousands of kilometres on the open Ocean. This means three things: first, that there are no hostile powers at the border that threaten India’s security; even though it does not see positively China’s activities in that maritime area.
Second, this grants India an easy access to offshore resources and most importantly to sea trade. This is also favoured by the fact that India is located mid-way between East Asia and Europe, two of the world’s richest economic areas, plus to the Middle East and its energy resources. Third, this enables India to project its power with little effort, notably through its Navy.
Yet, there are also challenges deriving from India’s position, notably linked to climate change. Having a typical monsoon climate characterized by cycles of abundant rainfalls and dry periods, South Asia is extremely exposed to its effects, as demonstrated by the seriousness and frequency of recent phenomena like drought, floods, and violent storms. Moreover, this also favours the spread of pests and disease. All such factors bear enormous costs both in the form of direct damage and of prevention efforts, and is a notable obstacle to India’s development.
India’s economic and military power
The rise of India as a major power largely lays on its economic development. In 2017, its GDP rose by 6.7% and today it is the world’s fourth in terms of Purchasing Power Parity. Its economy is diversified and several Indian firms have become major players in global business. Financially, India is generally stable, even though it experienced some troubles in recent years.
But the country is not yet fully developed. Infrastructures remain insufficient, and inefficiency exist in various sectors. While unemployment is low (less than 9% in 2017), larger shares of the population continue to live below the poverty line, and traditional agriculture still absorbs a considerable portion of the workforce. Income inequality remains strong, with large differences in wealth distribution between upper and lower classes and between different regions.
This allows to introduce the demographic dimension. India has a population of around 1.28 billion people, making it the second largest in the world just behind China, and it is expected to surpass it in the coming years. Most Indians are young, which is positive for its economic development. But at the same time having a big population brings also several challenges: achieving food and energy security becomes more difficult, as well as providing public services such as a healthcare. Moreover, this raises the problem of overcrowding and pollution, especially in large cities. Finally, the differences in wealth distribution can result in to social tensions: most of the population lives in the north, where a considerable Muslim minority is also present, but these areas are poorer than the southern parts of the country. In this regard, it should be noted that India has been fighting for decades against the insurgency of a Maoist group called the Naxalites.
Nevertheless, India continues its rise, also in military terms. It can field a large force that regularly participates to international exercises, and over the past few years it has been spending around 2.5% off its GDP in defence expenditures to modernize its armed forces. The Navy holds a particular importance, as it represents the mean to project its power across the Indian Ocean. As of today, the Indian Navy operates a large fleet that includes an aircraft carrier, a nuclear-powered attack submarine and several other units. In cooperation with Russia, India is also developing the BrahMos hypersonic cruise missile. Finally, it must not be forgotten that India is a nuclear power with an estimated stockpile of more than 100 warheads.
India’s geopolitics and foreign policy
For decades, India has maintained a nonaligned policy, of which it has been one of the leaders. But non-alignment does not mean neutrality. As a matter of fact, India has pursued its own national interests and has been involved in several conflicts.
Its oldest rival is surely Pakistan. Immediately after the partition in 1947, the two fought a major war, followed by other two in 1965 and 1971, plus series of skirmishes. Today, the relations remain tense, but the conflict remains frozen because both states have developed a nuclear strike capacity.
The main point of the divergence is Kashmir, which remains divided between India, Pakistan and China (who controls the Aksai Chin since the 1962 war with India). Apart from having become a symbol of the Indo-Pakistani rivalry, Kashmir also has a strategic importance for these powers.
Ruling it also allows to control the flow of water along the Indus valley, with all the consequences for human and economic development. For India, Kashmir is the gateway towards Central Asia as well as a region to control in order to prevent Pakistan from cooperating with its powerful Chinese ally.
On the other hand, for Pakistan dominating it is necessary to have more strategic depth and to preserve its connection with China, especially now that they are working together to develop the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), an ambitious infrastructure project to connect the two countries and that Islamabad considers fundamental to boost its economy, even though there are concerns over the debts its completion will bring.
This makes it clear that the Pakistan is not India’s only strategic problem, and not even the main one. In recent years, China has become the prominent national security concern for India. One reason is the former’s close ties with Pakistan, but there also direct disputes between Beijing and New Delhi, namely over the aforementioned Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh. The latter belongs to India, but is claimed by the PRC, and it represents a unique strategic challenge for New Delhi. As a matter of fact, it is connected to the rest of India only via a narrow passage chocked between China and Bangladesh and known as the “chicken neck”. India fears that in case of a conflict the Chinese rapidly overtake the Arunachal Pradesh by attacking this passage and cutting it from the rest of its territory.
In addition, Beijing and New Delhi are engaged in a geopolitical competition in South Asia. In 2017, the two powers faced each other in a military standoff over the Doklam Plateau, a strategic territory belonging to Bhutan (traditionally close to India) but claimed by the PRC; and since then they have been building up their military forces along the border.
China is also establishing ties with Nepal, raising concerns that the country me fall under its control, which would allow it to directly threaten Northern India. New Delhi has similar concerns over Bangladesh, because if it were to adopt a pro Chinese stance, the “chicken neck” would become even more vulnerable.
But the Sino-Indian rivalry is not limited to South Asia. The two are also competing in Indochina, where each of them is promoting its own economic and political projects. New Delhi is doing so on the basis of its “Look East Policy” launched in the 90s, whereas the latter considers this region an important element of its broader “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) strategy. In this regard, it is notable that India has refused to cooperate with China in this ambitious project.
Another country where their interest collide is Iran. India considers it a potentially precious ally, because it would allow to take Pakistan between two fires. Moreover, it is also a source of oil. But for these very same result and to counter the U.S., China is also interested in building a partnership with Iran.
Last but not least, there is the maritime dimension. Beijing is fostering its ties and establishing a greater presence in the Indian Ocean, in the optic of developing its Maritime Silk Road to connect its territory with Europe and the Middle East and by sea. But New Delhi considers this as “its own” Ocean and as an essential area for its plans to extend its influence on a global scale. Therefore, it is concerned by Beijing’s initiatives; notably in countries like Sri Lanka and the Maldives. In regard to the letter, the political turmoil that has affected the archipelago was largely to be interpreted in the optic of the Sino-Indian rivalry; and the recent electoral victory of Mohamed Solih seems to have marked a point in favour of India.
As a consequence of its rivalry with Beijing, New Delhi is also developing closer ties with other capitals that share similar security interests. The most notable trend is the gradual rapprochement with Washington. Even though it was never openly opposed to the US, during much of the Cold War India sympathized with the USSR and its relations with America were rather cold. But now that both are concerned over China’s rise, they are gradually establishing more cooperation, notably in security terms. India is following a similar policy with Japan and Australia, two other powers that are worried over the initiatives of the PRC. Together, these four states form the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal framework to ensure stability in the Indo-Pacific.
Two other noteworthy partners for India are Israel and the EU. The relations with the former are complicated by India’s tilts towards Iran, but the Jewish State remains an important partner as an arms supplier and for technological cooperation. On its part, the EU has a central role for India’s trade. Lastly, it should also be mentioned that New Delhi is increasing its economic cooperation with Africa as well.
Conclusion: India at the crossroad
This overview allows to draw some conclusion on India’s current and future role. The country finds itself at a crossroad. It has all the potential to emerge as a major world power, but to achieve this objective it must successfully solve the multiple challenges it is facing. Only time will tell to what extent it will manage to, but what is sure is that India is a power to monitor, and that in any case it will have a considerable impact in world affairs in the coming years.